Identification. The Bene Israel Indian Jews lived in Bombayand in villages on the Konkan Coast, south of Bombay, in Maharashtra State. Today less than 5,000 Bene Israel live inIndia, and more than 30,000 live in Israel. The Bene Israel claim that they originated in Israel and were shipwrecked off the Indian coast in the year 175 b.c. The name “Bene Israel ” means “Children of Israel” in Hebrew, bolstering their origin claims.
Location. In India the Bene Israel originally lived in more than 100 villages along the Konkan Coast, such as Pen, Ashtame, and Navgaon. In the nineteenth century they moved to Bombay and set up small colonies in other cities in India (e.g., Ahmedabad, Poona, and Delhi), leaving only a few hundred families in the Konkan.
After 1948 the Bene Israel community (all but 5,000) gradually moved to Israel, where they live exclusively in urban settlements. At first, the Bene Israel had difficulty adjusting to a climate colder than India’s, but this problem passed.
Demography. The Bene Israel population increased from 6,000 in the 1830s to 20,000 in 1948. Since then, due to natural increase and the decline of infant mortality in Israel, an estimated 32,000 Bene Israel live in Israel; less than 5,000 remain in India.
Linguistic Affiliation. The Bene Israel speak Marathi, an Indo-Aryan language, although it is dying out among the younger generation in Israel. In addition, the more educated speak English. In Israel, the Bene Israel speak modern Hebrew.
History and Cultural Relations
The Bene Israel claim that they are members of “lost” tribes that reached India as long ago as 175 b.c. According to their tradition, their ancestors were shipwrecked off the Konkan Coast and lost all their holy books; they only remembered the Shema, the Jewish prayer expressing faith in God. They lived among the Hindus and adopted several of their customs. When discovered by a Jewish outsider, David Rahabi, possibly in the eighteenth century, they observed the Sabbath, dietary laws, circumcision, and many of the Jewish festivals, but they had no synagogue. Navyacha San, the New Year, was only celebrated for one day; the rationale for several Jewish fast days appeared to have been forgotten; and Hannukah (the Feast of Lights) was unknown, since it had developed after the Bene Israel departure from the land of Israel.
From 1750 onward, the Bene Israel embarked upon a process of adjusting to mainstream Judaism. They gradually moved from the Konkan villages to Bombay and other cities as their involvement with the British Raj increased. Their first synagogue, named “Gate of Mercy,” was established in Bombay in 1796. The Bene Israel were also assisted in their religious life by Cochin Jews from the Malabar Coast, who acted as cantors, ritual slaughterers, and teachers. In the Second half of the nineteenth century, the Bene Israel of Bombay were joined by some Jews from Baghdad (including the Sassoon family), who served as a reference model of normative Judaism. Paradoxically, the arrival of Christian missionaries in the Konkan from 1810 promoted the Bene Israel rapprochement with world Jewry by introducing them to the Hebrew Bible and other religious texts in Marathi translation.
After the British withdrew from India in 1947 and the State of Israel’s establishment in 1948, Bene Israel began emigrating to Israel. By 1960, it became clear that certain rabbis in Israel would not marry Bene Israel to other Israelis on Jewish legal (halakhic ) grounds, alleging that there were doubts concerning their Jewishness. Between 1962 and 1964, the Bene Israel organized a series of strikes and demonstrations in Israel involving the whole community to demand status as “full Jews.” In 1964, the Chief Rabbinate withdrew its halakhic objections and declared the Bene Israel “full Jews in every respect.”
In India, the Bene Israel tended to live in typical tenement buildings in Bombay, although the upper middle classes lived in private houses. In Israel, many Bene Israel live in apartment blocks (called shikunim ) in “development towns.”
The traditional occupation of the Bene Israel in the Konkan villages was that of oil pressing. They were known as Shanwar Telis or “Saturday oilmen” because, as Jews, they refrained from pressing oil on Saturdays. In the towns, Bene Israel were primarily employed as clerks. Only in the Konkan villages did the Bene Israel sell the oil they pressed to other members of the village or neighboring villages. Otherwise they were and are employed in the services. In recent decades only a minority of the Bene Israel were still living in the Konkan villages, engaged in cultivation and agriculture and industries inDirectly associated with their traditional occupation of oil pressing. The majority of those still in India are employed either as white-collar workers or as mechanics and skilled laborers in factories and workshops. A significant minority were employed in India in the professional category as doctors, teachers, and lawyers. As a result of their previous ties with the British, many Bene Israel members are still to be found in the armed forces and the transportation and communication industries. Almost 50 percent of the women work outside the home in Israel.
Kin Groups and Descent. The Bene Israel strictly observed “caste” endogamy, marrying only other Bene Israel and, later, other Jews. However, there was no intermarriage between Gora (White) and Kala (Black) Bene Israel, the former claiming descent from the original families who were shipwrecked off the Konkan Coast and the latter being the descendants of mixed marriages with Hindus, possibly even Untouchables.
Kinship Terminology. In India, Bene Israel kinship terminology reflects local Marathi terminology, whereas in Israel the Bene Israel terms dod (uncle) and doda (aunt) refer to parent’s siblings without specification of maternal/paternal linearity.
Marriage and Family
Marriage. The Bene Israel traditionally prefer cross-cousin marriage in order to ensure that wealth and prestige are retained within the family. Postmarital residence is ideally patrilocal, although actually there are variations from the ideal. Divorce is completely disapproved of and was extremely rare in India, although in Israel it is on the increase. Widow remarriage was also discouraged in India. The incidence of polygamy is sharply declining among the Bene Israel; and in Israel, where polygamous marriages are forbidden under Contemporary Jewish religious law, there are only a few Bene Israel polygamous families in the whole country.
Domestic Unit. In India, the ideal pattern of family living among the Bene Israel was a structure based on a complex network of rights and duties between members that is usually described as “joint.” In its ideal form, the joint family has its basis in common property; members live in a single Household and share common resources. Most Bene Israel joint families are lineal, whereby sets of two husband-wife pairs (with children) belonging to different generations live Together. In addition, there is a collateral joint family composed of a man, his wife, and their unmarried children and a man’s married brother(s) with wife (or wives) and children. The “augmented family” refers to a lineal joint family where the senior male member has died. “Family with dependents” refers to a unit composed of husband, wife, and their unmarried children and other kin such as the wife’s brother, who could not be said to constitute an augmented family. “Nuclear Families,” composed of a husband and wife with or without unmarried children, represent a high percentage of families, particularly in Israel but also in India too, depending upon the stage in the life cycle. In many cases, the phenomenon of “proximal housing,” whereby patrikin live in separate yet adjacent or neighboring apartments, enables families to operate in a joint fashion by adhering to the ideal of mutual cooperation without making coresidence a requirement.
Inheritance. A man’s estate is divided among his widow and sons, although an amount is kept aside for unmarried daughters’ dowries.
Socialization. Socialization of the child is carried out within the joint family, all female members helping to raise the young child and male members acting as discipliners. The mother’s brother is particularly loved. A high value is placed on education. Today in Israel all Bene Israel attend regular schools with other Israeli children. Boys have a Bar Mitzvah ceremony at the age of 13.
Social Organization. In a manner not surprising to anyone familiar with the literature on caste, the Bene Israel were incorporated into the caste system. Although they themselves did not subscribe to the Hindu religion and mystic beliefs, they referred to themselves and were regarded by others as a caste. Caste features not only influenced external relations with non-Jews but also pervaded Jewish life internally in India. Thus the Bene Israel were divided into two jatis or subcastes called “Whites” and “Blacks,” or Gora and Kala. The White Bene Israel claimed direct descent from the seven couples who landed on the Konkan Coast, while the Black Bene Israel were said to be the descendants of unions between Bene Israel men and non-Bene Israel women. Until the twentieth century, Gora and Kala neither intermarried nor interdined: their relationship was characterized by their belief in the concept of pollution. As late as the 1970s a weak distinction between Gora and Kala was reported to have been preserved in very limited Bene Israel circles, but with the breakdown of caste, particularly in urban surroundings, jati divisions have lost much of their significance.
Political Organization. There never was a single Bene Israel leader, but different factions supported different social and charitable causes. The Stree Mandel, established as a women’s organization, is still active today, even in Israel. The Home for Destitutes and Orphans was established in 1934. During the twentieth century, sports clubs, Zionist organizations, and credit associations were set up, and many were carried over to Israel. The Bene Israel also published a large number of communal periodicals.
Religion and Expressive Culture
Religious Beliefs. The Bene Israel, as Jews, believe in one all-powerful God. Their beliefs, for example with respect to afterlife, were also influenced by Hinduism.
Religious Practitioners. The task of guiding the Community in religious matters was traditionally entrusted to three leaders from three particular families. Their positions were Inherited over several generations. By the nineteenth century, Cochin Jews from south India served among the Bene Israel as teachers, cantors, and ritual slaughterers. The Bene Israel never had any rabbis or priests (cohanim ) themselves.
Ceremonies. When first “discovered,” probably in the seventeenth century, the Bene Israel were found to be practicing circumcision and the dietary laws as prescribed in the Bible; they observed many Jewish festivals and recited the Shema, the confession of the Jewish faith, at every ceremonial occasion. From the nineteenth century, they began to come in line with the religious customs of other Jews. Today they practice Judaism like other Jews, although certain rites, such as the prewedding mehendi (henna) ceremony, are clearly influenced by Hindu custom.
Arts. Bene Israel sing and dance as other Maharashtrians. They also act out special kirtan (religious singing) of distinctly Biblical character, in which they sing about and act as Old Testament figures.
Medicine. Bene Israel believe in the efficacy of scientific medicine; some also receive homeopathic treatment.
Death and Afterlife. The Bene Israel believe in an afterlife, influenced both by Hindu and Jewish belief. The dead are buried according to Jewish custom in a special Jewish cemetery. If a person has committed suicide, he or she is buried just outside the walls of the cemetery.
See also Cochin Jew
Israel, Benjamin J. (1984). The Bene Israel of India. Bombay: Orient Longman.
Kehimkar, Hayeem S. (1937). The History of the Bene Israel of India. Tel Aviv: Dayag Press.
Roland, Joan (1989). Jews in British India. Waltham, Mass.: Brandeis University Press.
Strizower, Schifra (1971). “Verbal Interaction among the Bene Israel.” International Journal of the Sociology of Language 13:71-85.
Weil, Shalva J. (1988). “The Influence of Caste Ideology in Israel.” In Cultural Transition, edited by M. Gottesman, 150—161. Jerusalem: Magnes Press.
SHALVA J. WEIL
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